A Poor Case for Quitting: Mistaking Incompetence for Interventionism

Courtesy Reuters

When such high-caliber observers as Joseph Nye, Jr., ("Redefining the National Interest," July/August 1999) and Edward Luttwak ("Give War a Chance") call on the United States to scale back its humanitarian intervention in places of low strategic importance, they get attention. Although they use sharply different arguments, both scholars would have the West curtail its tendency to intervene in other people's wars. Unfortunately, their discussions muddle the long-overdue dialogue on U.S. national interests and the proper policy toward peace operations.

Luttwak's essential argument -- that most forms of outside intervention actually postpone peace and perpetuate war, making it better to "let minor wars burn themselves out" -- is seductive. So, too, is Nye's appeal for raising the bar on humanitarian interventions and keeping America's strategic eye focused on higher-priority interests. His is a plea not to squander unique military and political capital on lower-order conflicts. Like Luttwak's argument, Nye's claims could be persuasive, especially as the election season puts the Clinton administration's proclivity for frequent, political use of military power under scrutiny.

The sad thing about the apparent convergence of Nye's and Luttwak's views is that both miss the real point. It is the actual record of U.S. peace operations during the 1990s that is most worthy of criticism, not the inherent merit of using American power -- in all its forms -- to support regional stability and manage conflict. How various U.S. "national interests" relate to one another is more important than the debate between an expansive "Clinton doctrine" and more restrictive ones. Recent American policy has too often succeeded in discrediting worthy ideas, institutions, and principles.


Nye is uncomfortable about the ease with which a "C list" humanitarian issue like Kosovo managed to "migrate" to the "B list" of national interests that merit the urgent use of military force. Critical of the U.S. diplomacy that forced Clinton into a test of wills with Slobodan Miloševic, he cautions against responding to "

Loading, please wait...

This article is a part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, please subscribe.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.